Harriet Said Themes
by Beryl Bainbridge

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

This novel is a study of teenage sexual curiosity and male mid-life crisis. Yet it is also more than simply another Lolita story. The most frightening aspect of this book is its low-key portrayal of the angry, destructive Harriet, who, it must be remembered, is responsible for the destruction of both Peter Biggs and his wife, and for the actions of the narrator. Like other fictional characters before her, Harriet is a bad seed, and she exerts her evil influence on all who come in contact with her. Yet the reader sees her only through the eyes of the narrator, who seems merely to report what went on during that one summer vacation. The detached tone of the narrative flattens the action and makes the horrific nature of the events more frightening because they are related so matter-of-factly.

As a coming-of-age novel, Harriet Said certainly gives the reader a chilling glimpse of adolescent anger translated from the fantasy world of girlish dreams and diaries into a real-world scenario, with terrible consequences. That it is told as an extended flashback adds to the disturbing nature of the entire narrative, since the voice telling the story is clearly older now but certainly no more aware of the perniciousness of the events of that summer than when they were actually happening. The novel concludes by circling back to its first chapter, in which the narrator described how she and Harriet screamed and cried as they accused Peter Biggs of murdering his wife.

In healthy adolescents, sexual curiosity and an exploration of the power that it can afford them are certainly normal. Bainbridge, however, makes it clear that these two girls are aberrant; she shows the reader what can happen when sexuality becomes a weapon, as it does not only for Harriet and the narrator but for Biggs’s wife as well. Mrs. Biggs is a metaphoric black widow who consumes her husband by the sheer force of her will, a woman whose dominance is expressed both in the inequity in their size (she outweighs him by a considerable amount) as well as by her demands for physical attention, which Bainbridge graphically illustrates in the parlor love scene witnessed by the two girls.

This novel consistently portrays the main female characters as physically, emotionally, and sexually domineering while at the same time presenting its male characters as weak (Peter Biggs) or...

(The entire section is 599 words.)